Nestled in a narrow valley of the Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs National Park (and the adjacent eponymously-named spa town) has long drawn visitors eager to “take the waters” for their reputed curative benefits. Local indigenous people bathed in the geothermal springs for millennia before Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the area in 1521.
Established in 1832 as the country’s first national “reservation,” Hot Springs became a national park in 1921 by congressional act. It’s the oldest managed park within the U.S. National Parks System (USNPS). The town gained a sordid reputation in the 1870s when illegal gambling and prostitution first gained footholds. In the early 20th century, Major League Baseball and Negro League teams held spring training camps here.
Hot Springs remains a popular destination. Over 1.5 million visited the national park in 2018. There’s also Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred racetrack and casino. Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine state park lie to the south while Lake Ouachita State Park is 10 miles to the northwest. These Quachita River impoundments are home to numerous resorts and restaurants as well as a variety of recreational water sports.
Hot Springs Bathhouses and Fountains
Until the establishment of Gateway Arch National Park in 2018, Hot Springs was the smallest park in the USNPS. Originally encompassing historic Bathhouse Row and its 47 springs on the lower slopes of Hot Springs Mountain, the park now includes Whittington Lake Park and other nearby mountains. The park covers 5,000 acres and is open year-round.
Hot Springs has a humid subtropical climate with a daily mean temperature of 61.5° F (16.4° C). Oak, hickory and pine trees dominate the area; some of the park’s old-growth forests date back 200 years.
The springs’ total well flow exceeds half a million gallons daily. The USNPS manages the production of the spring’s hot waters (average temperature 143° F/ 63° C), supplying them to nearby hotels, water fountains, and the park’s two operating bathhouses for a concession fee. They are located in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas on Bathhouse Row.
Water temperatures are maintained at a safe level by centralized cooling towers. Naturally potable, the springs’ waters are slightly alkaline and considered pleasant to drink.
Accommodations and Camping
Nearby accommodations include the venerable Arlington Hotel (nofollow) (host to luminaries such as Al Capone, Babe Ruth and several U.S. presidents including native son Bill Clinton). Plus a slew of other hotels and lodging. Tent campers and RVers can use the park’s Gulpha Gorge public campground, located two miles from the center of town.
Gulpha Gorge offers 40 sites of varying sizes. All have electric hookups, water and sewer connections as well as a picnic table and a pedestal grill. Modern bathrooms are available; showers are not. Occupancy is limited to 8 people and two vehicles (1 RV and 1 tent OR 2 tents). All sites cost $30 per night and checkout time is noon.
Extending over 26 miles, the park’s trail network is divided into three sections: the Hot Springs and North Mountain trails, the West Mountain Trails, and the Sunset Trail. The first two are relatively short, interconnected paths while the third is a 10-mile trek across more remote areas of the park.
Visitors are welcome to ride bikes on any of the park’s paved roads. However, bike traffic is disallowed on the Grand Promenade and the sidewalk in front of Bathhouse Row. Ebikes are allowed wherever conventional bikes can travel.
While cellular phone service covers virtually all of the park, no public WiFi is available.
When to Visit
Typically, Hot Springs enjoys mild weather year-round although summers can be hot and humid. Most of the area’s rainfall occurs in spring and fall.
Park hours are from 5 am to 10 pm daily. Vehicular traffic is allowed from 8 am to 10 pm on roads to Hot Springs Mountain, North Mountain and West Mountain Summit. The park closes on federal holidays.
Address: 369 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71901
Season: Year round